Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 39

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 39: Referencing Characters by Title Rather Than Name

In the time it takes you to write two small words, you might be dramatically distancing your readers from your story’s narrative. Scared? You should be. But don’t be that scared, because this one of our most common writing mistakes is just as easy to fix as it is to commit. And what are those two small but egregious words? Your character’s title (in place of his name).

One of these sinful words is almost always “the” (although a possessive pronoun can do the trick as well). The other is a descriptive noun that tells readers something about a character: his gender, his status, his job, his relationship to another character. For example, you might be referencing characters in your story as any of the following:

  • The doctor.
  • The pilot.
  • His mother.
  • Her boss.
  • His fiance.
  • The secret agent.
  • The man.
  • The lady.

Wrinkling your nose in disagreement, are you? After all, what’s so wrong with any of those? They’re just simple descriptions that are completely true. How could they possibly be pulling your readers out of the narrative?  Good questions–and the answer is: you’re right–there’s nothing wrong with any of these in themselves. The problem is only in their actual usage in the narrative. Take a look.

How to Use Titles to Pull Your Readers Out of the Narrative

Consider the following deep third-person point of view. Our narrator is a spunky astronaut on the brink of being grounded from her first mission thanks to a head cold:

Sienna stared at Dr. Jeraldo Martinez. He had been her personal physician ever since she came on board the launch team. He knew how much this mission meant to her. Surely, he could fudge the reports on a measly head cold to get her headed back to the moon.

“You can’t be serious!” she said.

The doctor exchanged a pained glance with Mike–who’d asked Sienna to marry him last night.

Her fiancé intervened. “Now, sweetpea, you can’t blame Jeraldo for this.”

The astronaut slid off the examining table. “Just watch me!” She stormed out of the room. She’d talk to her boss about this, just see if she wouldn’t!

Now, granted, the example is a little hampered by the fact that this is the first time you’re meeting Sienna and her gang, so you presumably need a little descriptive guidance to know she’s an astronaut, Jeraldo is a doctor, and Mike is her fiancé. But this scene is taking place in the middle of the story. Readers have already been introduced to all these characters and their relationships to Sienna. They know these characters’ roles. Even more importantly, Sienna definitely knows their roles.

The trouble with referring to characters by their titles, rather than their names, is that it kills the realism of a deep POV. How many of us mentally refer to people (especially people with whom we’re familiar) as “the doctor” or “my fiance”? Subtle as it is, this is a tiny but instant pin in the balloon of your readers’ suspension of disbelief.

How to Use Character Names to Keep Readers Immersed in the Narrative

Fixing this one of our most common writing mistakes is simple. All you have to do is switch out the titles for names and pronouns.

Sienna stared at Dr. Martinez. He had been her personal physician ever since she came on board the launch team. He knew how much this mission meant to her. Surely, he could fudge the reports on a measly head cold to get her headed back to the moon.

“You can’t be serious!” she said.

He exchanged a pained glance with Mike–who’d asked Sienna to marry him last night.

Mike intervened. “Now, sweetpea, you can’t blame Jeraldo for this.”

She slid off the examining table. “Just watch me!” She stormed out of the room. She’d talk to Capt. Wilkes about this, just see if she wouldn’t!

The effect is an admittedly simple one. But never discount the importance of intimacy with your readers in your narrative choices. The deeper your POV, the more important these subtleties become.

3 Reasons Authors Sometimes Slip Into This Writing Mistake–and Why They Don’t Matter

Today’s most common writing mistake is, admittedly, a bit of a pet peeve for me (just ask anyone I’ve ever edited for!). But it’s one even I find myself committing in my own writing. What are some reasons we might end up falling into this trap?

1. We’re Quite Tickled by the Character’s Title/Role

This is undoubtedly the worst reason we can choose for committing this writing mistake. Admittedly, it’s pretty awesome to be writing about an astronaut or a pilot or a secret agent or a cowboy. Sometimes we just want to swish the sound of those lovely roles over our tongues and enjoy the satisfaction of it all. But readers don’t enjoy it nearly as much as we do. They don’t need to be reminded at every turn that they’re reading about a secret agent. Even if they don’t notice and feel patronized, the small amount of enjoyment we get out of it still isn’t worth endangering narrative intimacy even slightly.

2. We’re Worried Readers Might Forget a Character’s Role or Relationship

When Dr. Martinez is introduced in Chapter 1 and then fails to reappear until Chapter 32, we might be legitimately concerned that readers will have forgotten all about him and his medical practice. But aside from the fact that, in his particular case, his own name–Dr. Martinez–offers reminder enough, there are always going to be subtler and simpler solutions than constantly referring to him as “the doctor.”

A final comment on this: Nothing wrong with providing readers a needed reminder. But readers often need to be reminded far less often than we think they do. Give them credit for being just as aware of your story details as you are. If you end up erring on the side of not enough info, your beta readers will always let you know.

3. We Feel the Need for Variation in Our Sentence Subjects

Variety in our narrative is important. Sometimes we might worry that using a character’s name or even a pronoun over and over again will grow repetitious in readers’ minds. But, frankly, this is not a concern. Character names and pronouns are invisible to readers. They’ll never fault you for overusing them. If you’re struggling with monotonous sentences, the problem is not that you’re using Sienna’s name in every sentence. The problem is that you’re not varying your sentence structures. For example:

Don’t Do This:

Sienna got out of bed and made coffee. She read the newspaper while she drank her coffee. She took a shower and got dressed for training.

Or This:

Sienna got out of bed and made coffee. She read the newspaper while she drank her coffee. The astronaut took a shower and got dressed for training.

Do This Instead:

The first rays of sunlight woke Sienna, and she rolled out of bed. A cup of Folgers was already calling her name. While she drank off the whole pot, she looked over the paper for any news of the launch. Not a word. Probably just as well. She tossed the paper across the table and headed to the bathroom to shower and dress for today’s bout of training.

Most of us overuse character titles and roles to the point that this can be an easy mistake shrug off. Don’t do that. Take the extra time to tighten up your narrative by removing this unncessary obstacle between your readers and their intimacy with your story. The result will always be a subtly polished manuscript that welcomes readers into its world.

Tell me your opinion: Have you committed this one of our most common writing mistakes in your narrative?

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 39

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This is a very informative and practical post. However, as numerous comments above have noted, the most challenging situation when using title versus name is for parents, especially in third person.

    No matter how deep your third person POV is, there will likely be situations in which the character’s mother or father is interacting with another character (with the main POV character present in the scene), and the constant use of “Brian’s mother said,” is a bit unsettling. And yet, to come up with a pattern in which some paragraphs/interactions use the character’s given name and other passages use “Brian’s mother,” is tricky.

    Anyway, it’s necessary to iron out many of these types of issues to take your writing to the next level. Quite often something in the original post or comments jars something loose and leads to a solution. Perhaps this discussion still has life left in it. (Or perhaps the mother/father issue might be worthy of another blog post!)

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